Divorcing parents must find a way to balance the needs of their children with their own post-divorce limitations. Unfortunately, this can often lead to stress, frustration and anxiety for all parties. In addition, if the marriage ended with hurt feelings and heated emotions, the ongoing parental relationship could remain frigid. Intentional or not, these factors can combine and lead to parental alienation.
Experts first studied parental alienation decades ago. It refers to a child of divorce exhibiting feelings of anger or resentment toward one parent. Most often, these are learned behaviors based on what the child sees and hears from the other parent. Based on the resulting interactions, the parental alienation generally falls into three degrees of severity:
- In cases of mild parental alienation, the child might initially seem reluctant to visit the alienated parent. It might take coaxing or some level of bribery to begin the custody exchange. The child will likely not exhibit any strong negative feelings toward the other parent, just an overall resistance to the visit. Once the custody exchange has occurred, however, the child enjoys spending time with the alienated parent.
- When the family struggles with moderate parental alienation, not only does the child strongly resist spending time with the alienated parent, but the child also continues to exhibit negative behaviors throughout. The child will often argue with the alienated parent and carry resentment through the entire custody experience.
- If the parental alienation is severe, the child might run away or hide to prevent spending time with the alienated parent. They will strongly resist the exchange and harbor resentment the entire time they visit.
Parental alienation can be intentional or unintentional, direct or indirect. In direct parental alienation, one parent might share their own negative thoughts and feelings about the alienated parent with the child. When the alienation is indirect, it is often the result of the child overhearing an adult conversation or reading negative social media conversations that paint the alienated parent in a poor light.
Parental alienation can damage the parent-child relationship for years or decades to come. In many instances, the harm is irreparable. If either parent suspects that parental alienation, to any degree, is occurring, it is crucial to act quickly through the legal process to put an end to the negativity.